Do We Need A Democratic 'Contract For America'?

(One of the odd things about group blogging is that you run the risk of writing about the same stories as your fellow bloggers. Typically, when that happens, I just scrap whatever I was working on and move on to something new. But with this story, I think it's worth adding my two cents since Chris and I approach it from different angles. That, and the Post story is so stupid, I think a pile-on is warranted here.)

It's pretty funny to read a story on the front page of a newspaper before flipping through it to find a columnist laying waste to the very premise the story was predicated upon. That's exactly the case in this morning's Washington Post, with Shailagh Murray and Charles Babington writing about Democrats' "struggle to seize opportunity" and E.J. Dionne slapping them back down.

First up, the front page narrative that Democrats can't pull it together.

News about GOP political corruption, inept hurricane response and chaos in Iraq has lifted Democrats' hopes of winning control of Congress this fall. But seizing the opportunity has not been easy, as they found when they tried to unveil an agenda of their own. ...

There is no agreement on whether to try to nationalize the congressional campaign with a blueprint or "contract" with voters, as the Republicans did successfully in 1994, or to keep the races more local in tone. And the party is still divided over the war in Iraq: Some Democrats, including Pelosi, call for a phased withdrawal; many others back a longer-term military and economic commitment.

Dionne's response?

The false premise is that oppositions win midterm elections by offering a clear program, such as the Republicans' 1994 Contract With America. I've been testing this idea with such architects of the 1994 "Republican revolution" as former representative Vin Weber and Tony Blankley, who was Newt Gingrich's top communications adviser and now edits the Washington Times editorial page.

Both said the main contribution of the contract was to give inexperienced Republican candidates something to say once the political tide started moving the GOP's way. But both insisted that it was disaffection with Bill Clinton, not the contract, that created the Republicans' opportunity -- something Bob Dole said at the time.

My attention to politics in 1994 was not such that I actually remember how the media treated Republicans at the time, but I simply cannot imagine this much endless speculative criticism about their chances in the midterms. (Feel free to correct me in the comments if I'm mistaken.) While I agree that there are certainly some problems with the Democratic leadership, I don't view those problems as insurmountable or even necessarily decisive in an election year. It's true that there is no single Democratic position on Iraq. It's also true that there is no single defining document summing up every Democratic policy position. But we've seen what happens when a party enters Washington with single-minded goals and uniformity of thought on every issue. That kind of failure to include new thinking leads to weak governance that relies more on faith than reality. It simply doesn't work.

I have always viewed the Democratic Party as something of a coalition party. In Canada, we'd be the Liberals and the New Democrats. In the UK, we'd be Labour and the Liberal Democrats. We are the center-left, the left, and the greens, with those further left tending to take refuge in minor third parties. The media looks at the single-minded Republicans, sees that they've won some elections, and assumes that since Democrats don't demand so much uniformity, that it's a problem. Personally, I view it as a strength, and I think more elected Democrats would do well to make that case. We're strong enough to disagree on some issues and yet come together to build a progressive government that works. I'm not convinced that we need a handbook to show us the way.

Tags: Democrats, Media, Message (all tags)

Comments

23 Comments

Re: Democratic 'Contract For America'?

There isn't an analogy to news coverage of 1994.  You're right that there was less speculative criticism, because there wasn't much speculation about Republicans' chances.  No one really thought Republicans had any chance of taking the House.  40 years of history and all.

However, post election polling in 1994 showed that only like 20% of voters had heard of the Contract.

by curiousgeorge 2006-03-07 07:13AM | 0 recs
Re: We Don't Need A Democratic 'Contract

Things were very different in 1994.  The focus was on Clinton, but he never got the adulation that Bush did.  It was all about his youthful, pizza-eating staffers.  Heralthcare had just crashed and burned, or was in the process of doing so.  Clinton had a Dem Congress, but they all had their own ideas and viewed him as something of an upstart.

The main thing about the GOP is that it DID have an ideology and a program, then as now.  Lower taxes.  Conservative "family" values.  They were still finding their way on national security, because the demise of the Soviet Union seemed to leave us without an enemy, so that may have been the weak link.  Before 9/11 theywere trying China on for size.

Gingrich only came up with the Contract late in the game.  Before that his emphasis was on stepping up the level of partisanship, things like lists of all the pejorative terms that could be applied to Dems and their ideas.

I think Dionne is basically right.  Dems in their districts should talk about what the voters are interested in, whether Iraq, prescription drugs, port security, whatever.

The only "unified" themes need to be less secrecy and more openness, less corruption and a renewed focus on ordinary people and their problems.  Change the focus of the debate, of government.  Solutions can come later.

by Mimikatz 2006-03-07 07:21AM | 0 recs
Re:

I blogged on this today. The problem I think is America wants a unified voice in the Democrats. They don't really have that right now and the Republican smear machine is great at exposing it.

Howard Dean said a few months ago that the party was going to release a platform when "the time was right". I wonder when the time is going to be right? Hopefully that won't be on November 8.

http://www.intoxination.net/2006/03/07/w arning-to-democrats-wake-up/

Jamie
http://www.intoxination.net

by hovercrafter 2006-03-07 07:24AM | 0 recs
Do We Need A Democratic 'Contract For America'?

A couple of thoughts.  

1 - The first article infuriates me because once again Dems go to the paper and bash party leaders.  The Govs are unhappy with Congressional leadership, etc.  Why do we think this helps us?  It feeds into the view that we are rudderless and hurts the party "brand" with the public.  The Repubs don't do this.  When are we going to learn???

2 - Having lived through the Contract with America, its impact is somewhat overblown.  Unhappiness with Clinton was to blame for most of the 1994 tidal wave.  However, the "Contract with America" gave Repubs a theme to run on which is probably more important than the specifics of the contract.  Does anyone remember the specifics of "Putting People First" or "The Bridge to the 21st Century"?  Some of this is about marketing - we need to have a campaign theme under which our candidates can hang their positions.

3 - The Repubs have a great network of think tanks which create position papers their candidates can use.  We need something similar.  The national party should not tell local candidates what to run on but we can provide them with the tools to be better candidates.  Position papers, which local candidates could choose to use, could be a useful tool.

4 - Timing.  The Repubs rolled out The Contract with America after Labor Day when people were starting to pay attention to the election.  The Dems should use a similar strategy.  Rolling out something now would be a waste since only political junkees and activists are currently engaged.

by John Mills 2006-03-07 07:27AM | 0 recs
Excellent points

I read a post on Huffington Post a while back by a Hollywood writer. His point was the party does not utilize their talents. This could be a starting point; they are gifted story tellers with great marketing skills.

As for timing, I have long argued that it should be timed to current events. Phased release timed to the scandal of the month would be my approach.

by Citizen80203 2006-03-07 08:30AM | 0 recs
What burns me...

Is the caucus went to all the trouble of putting the GOP caucus on record by voting against increase port, border, and infrastructure security and failed to capitalize at the opportune moment. The port security platform should have been in the can waiting for this moment.

Imagine how the events of the past two weeks would have unfolded, had a contract with a "securing our nation section" section been at the ready. Imagine the creditability pedestal from which to shout about security. This is the effect use and reason for a "contract".

by Citizen80203 2006-03-07 01:37PM | 0 recs
No.

The comment below is key. Yes, we are the party of nuanced consideration and intelligent intellectual (gasp) discussion that sees debate on issues as a good thing that leads to better solutions for all. Which is exactly what I feel is one of our greatest strengths. The party where everyone is welcome, where you can feel free to disagree, sounds like America to me.

I don't think we need some laundry list of issues on which we agree. I think we need to hammer home the fact that we believe in looking at all points of view, considering every option and choosing the one that is best for the people of America. We've all heard the saying: "If it aint broke don't fix it." Well it's broke. It's time to get the tools and the talent and shape a new America where equality and freedom for the people are once again supreme.

"It's true that there is no single Democratic position on Iraq. It's also true that there is no single defining document summing up every Democratic policy position. But we've seen what happens when a party enters Washington with single-minded goals and uniformity of thought on every issue. That kind of failure to include new thinking leads to weak governance that relies more on faith than reality. It simply doesn't work."

by TimThe Terrible 2006-03-07 07:30AM | 0 recs
Re: No.

""If it aint broke don't fix it." Well it's broke."

When I fix anything, I always refer to the manual. Intellect and nuance are fine for the party faithful but the appeal must be made to those who want to be led (the soft middle).

by Citizen80203 2006-03-07 08:37AM | 0 recs
Re: Do We Need A Democratic 'Contract For America'

This Bloomberg article -- a much more upbeat story about the Democrats' and their chances (imagine, an article that actually quotes Democratic politicians sounding optimistic and cheerful -- isn't that against the law?), has a good quote on the "unity" issue from Evan Bayh:

Bayh says unity is overrated, especially in a Congress, where there are competing Democratic factions.

``Instead of taking a strong, compelling position, it gets watered-down and mushy because you are seeking consensus,'' Bayh said in an interview. ``Before the last midterm elections [2002], I was in a meeting of the Democratic caucus in January or February.

``Three thousand Americans had just been killed in a terrorist strike, and our folks said Medicare and Social Security were the issues to run on,'' Bayh said. ``Why? It was the only thing they could all agree on! Clearly, national security was going to determine the election, but it got dropped from the list.''

by maestroanonymo 2006-03-07 08:12AM | 0 recs
Not a handbook, just a road map.

It is going on the offense. It will contrast the GOP incompetence. It does give candidates a unified message. It gives the public something tangible regarding the Democratic Party. It shows the Democratic Party in a "team" light. It immunizes against "they have no plan".

by Citizen80203 2006-03-07 08:16AM | 0 recs
Re: 'Contract For America'?

My memory on 1994 is a little hazy as well, but I seem to recall that most media put little stock in Republican chances for taking the House so that on Election Night, they were all sort of stunned (or appeared to be anyway).

by Edward Copeland 2006-03-07 08:18AM | 0 recs
I agree

Yes, but only for the same reasons Blankley and Vin Weber noted

by politics64 2006-03-07 08:25AM | 0 recs
Re: Do We Need A Democratic 'Contract For America'

What I very strongly recall is that the Contract was largely symbolic.  The repubs waved it madly as proof of their positive agenda and it turned out hardly any americans had actually read the damn thing.  My vague recollection is that then they were polled on the actual substance of the contract it did badly, but this I don't remember well.  

by calscientist 2006-03-07 08:33AM | 0 recs
No!

We need to lock up the criminals in congress!

"We have to address the fact that the president has broken the law." -- Senator Russ Feingold

by Landsurveyor 2006-03-07 08:49AM | 0 recs
What if the R's invented TV?

Look at it this way, if the republicans invented TV and used it to win an election, what good would it do to pretend that TV was never invented or that TV was a bogus PR stunt anyway?   We'd use TV.  

Bogus PR stunt or not, Newt changed the expectations of the press and public by introducing the idea of the "contract".    Now it seems that some Democrats want to try and  swim upstream against those expectations.      Why?  

by delawareliberal 2006-03-07 08:52AM | 0 recs
There is no contract

that a Democratic party can offer because the party is too diverse. It's a platform for failure.
Contracts are for simple minds. Contracts are for Republicans.

Democrats-like Jane Harman- need to stop betraying Democratic principals.

by Landsurveyor 2006-03-07 08:53AM | 0 recs
Re: Do We Need A Democratic 'Contract For America'

I, too, wasn't paying attention in 1994, and would love to see a side-by-side comparison (for its own sake - I've said here before that I think the 94/06 analogy is terrible).

Anyhoo, the first thing to ask about this Dem 'CWA' is, Why the Dem leadership are so anxious about it?

Would anyone (media, GOP, outside Dems) have even thought there would be a Dem CWA if Dems hadn't started blabbing about last year?

And promising it to appear at one time, and then postponing it. And now we have (I assume this is true) Pelosi personally promising a timescale.

Some folks in the leadership evidently think it's a big deal, and are not comfortable - either with the general notion of a CWA, or with the content proposed for this one.

The media are bound to smell blood. Or spy a puzzle, at least.

I accept that the hacks could have made this up from bar-room discussions with discontented mid-level munchkins from pols' staffs. Of those deeply frustrated governors, for instance.

My guess is, the Govs have been in town, and were happy to kill some hotel-room time bellyaching to the hacks.

And they've got Reid on the record saying It's a long, slow, arduous process.

Which is not to say that journos don't make stuff up, or (more often) fold, spindle and mutilate. But my sense here is that they have plenty to back up a story of a lack of Dem coordination and of discontent with the state of the national campaign among senior Dem pols.

And, back on the 1994 thing: it's a commonplace that, most of the time, the party in the White House loses ground in the midterms.

But, in fact, it's extremely fair for a change of control to result.

In the 20th century, in the House, it happened in 1910, 1918, 1930, 1946, and 1994; in the Senate, in 1918, 1946, 1986 and 1994.

The GOP majority today is small historical standards. But incumbency advantage is higher. (How gerrymanders affect the comparison, I have no feel for.)

As to it being a strength to embrace that Dems nationwide are all over the place on policy - I'm struggling to think in which election in which country that might have been a winning strategy!

I think most voters accept that there's bound to be a range of views in each party. But a party celebrating the fact is likely to be taken as proclaiming that either it's organizationally a shambles, or is a hopeless ideological mess, or is trying to keep dark an unpopular plan till after the election!`

by skeptic06 2006-03-07 08:54AM | 0 recs
Re: Do We Need A Democratic 'CwA'?

It's probably helpful to distinguish between a CwA as an election tool (probably worthless), and CwA as a governing tool (potentially priceless.)  It won't help us to win an election to have a party-line; in fact, if anything it likely is a net loss.  

But if there is anything controversial we'd like to acheive after November, we'll want a piece of paper to wave about while we say "The American People Just Voted For This!"  Because that's a story the MSM can understand and propagate. And that, in turn, makes it a story nervous politicians will be more reluctant to fight.

by Professor Foland 2006-03-07 09:43AM | 0 recs
We Do Need A Democratic 'Contract For America'?

We should follow what the GOP did lockstep. Wait until September or October come up with something legitimate not just catchy and sell it for two months.

Putting it out there for too long will make us look bad.

It should be core principles more than actual policies. How the Democrats will govern. What they will do.

It should focus on competence and the GOP incompetence. We will manage the government properly. We care about making government work for you. Then several other bullet points. But it should not be something calls for national health care, b/c democrats will not be able to agree on it.

Don't go too far, but be serious about our brand. Why we should govern. What we care about more than just a laundry list of legislative proposals.

by optimist 2006-03-07 10:52AM | 0 recs
Re: Probably

I wholeheartedly agree. I've even caught my husband saying he doesn't know if he'd vote for a Democrat if the Bush cronies/RR weren't in charge. I'm scared the Dems are going to get comfy sitting back on their haunches, passively letting the Republicans crucify themselves. Because at the end of the day, Republicans (even though they're screwing things up) are controlling the dialogue. Dems need to be speaking in active voice - it's not too early.

by TallyInsider 2006-03-07 12:39PM | 0 recs
Re: Do We Need A Democratic 'Contract For America'
I am on my way out the door so I may have to come back later and elucidate further, but I think everyone should go and give this article by noted SF Author, physicist, and free-thinker, David Brin a read also.  He makes a strong case for a Democractic version of the Contract With America as:

  1. a valuable symbolic tool;

  2. a hammer to beat the Republicans with, i.e. they failed to keep most of the promises in that document;

  3. abandoned intellectual property in the sense that the facts of GOP leadership on the ensuing 12 years have shown that the GOP doesn't really believe in any of the ideas in the document, some of which are very good, common-sense reform ideas which resonate strongly with the electorate, i.e. independent audits.

by cman 2006-03-07 12:48PM | 0 recs
How about "Prescription for America"

I had this thought about a week ago. By chance I came upon a candidate in rural Illinois who isn't afraid to say what he believes. Even on gay marriage. I was shocked. I mean, really I'm just not used to it. I'm used to the Reids, the Clintons, the Bidens. But not to some Dr. David Gill. He even has a good slogan. Instead of talking about "Issues" he talks about a "Prescription for America".

This really left me wondering so I wrote a diary at Daily Kos on it called "We need conviction in Leadership - Prescription for America". If you're interested:

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/2/28/ 81848/4289

by jedinecny 2006-03-07 02:00PM | 0 recs
Re: Do We Need A Democratic 'Contract For America'

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by kimi98 2006-06-07 11:40AM | 0 recs

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